Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lessons for the Past Year from Rev. John Haynes Holmes

In pursuit of a master's thesis this week, I have read far more American pacifist literature of the 1940s than I ever expected to-- dwelling in particular on the work of John Haynes Holmes, the great Unitarian minister, renegade preacher of nonviolence, and social reformer. Holmes had his hand in every great left-liberal pie of the first half of the Twentieth Century, from the Social Gospel to the NAACP to the ACLU to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Here was a man who never once deviated from the path of most resistance, proclaiming that "War is the great atrocity" even when the full heft of progressives, Popular Front-ers and fellow-travelers in the world of liberal religion was pressing down against him. I am not a true and thoroughgoing Holmesian in my ideology, but still, I can't help but feel -- especially when we look back on this year of universally-ascendent gangsterism and savagery -- that we need to hear again his lonely cry for peace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Violence and Responsibility

The theme of this blog the past few weeks has been the importance of showing mercy, even to people who have done unconscionable things. And I suspect with regard to the particular crimes under discussion lately, this stance will seem to many readers far too lenient toward the guilty, and far too indifferent to the needs of victims. I hope I won't be read this way (if I'm ever read at all), because my hope has been to suggest a model of justice that makes both protection and support of victims and mercy toward the perpetrators central to its conduct. Even people who give me the benefit of the doubt, however, I suspect will feel on some level that such sentiments are just that -- sentimental, unfounded in any real experience of violence.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

More on the Rights of the Accused

It’s freshman year of college and I have been handed my first campus petition. I am thrilled. This, at last, is the vindication of years of waiting out the clock at my conservative Southern high school, in the hope that one day, I would finally be around fellow radicals and malcontents at some institution of higher learning. I am ready to join any revolution going; I will put my name to anything they hand me, and probably my phone number and home address too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Do not follow the multitude..."

As I am set this week to participate in another post-Ferguson protest, I feel I have to express once again in some medium the fact that my conscience is somewhat ill at ease with my decision to do so. The larger message and goal of this movement seems on the one hand to be essential and timely. There may not come again in the near future a moment when there is so widespread and justified a revulsion against the abuses in our criminal justice system. And yet, I continue to worry with Kevin Drum that for the sake of conveying to people the larger truth of the systematic brutality and racial bias of that system, we are playing fast and loose with the reputations of potentially innocent people. I said in my last post on this blog that "I am not particularly interested in the question of whether the facts of each case should be subordinated to a larger social message-- because plainly, the answer to this is 'no[.]'" Unfortunately, though, the fact that something seems "plain" to me is not really a reason for regarding it as uninteresting; especially when it is not at last something that seems plain to a lot of other people. My inbox has been full these last few days of messages endorsing the protests that seem willing to subordinate the individual truths to the larger one. This troubles me a great deal, as it does Drum, and I feel I have to make some effort to stop it, if I am going to further involve myself meanwhile in the protests.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Poem

Young People

A big bearded 20-something who
Is the loudest in the room
Is eating hummus and saying: “The oppressed demand a permanent revolution
“They must have blood!
“Kill the fascists!”
(At some point it emerges from the conversation
That he is studying for the priesthood.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Moral Witness -- or Moral Panic?

As Kevin Drum has pointed out, the news seems especially full these last few weeks of accounts of alleged criminal wrongdoing -- accounts specifically that share in common the quality of drawing attention to social injustices far greater than the individual cases. Yet in many (though not all) of these cases, the facts of the individual incident turn out to be morally complex in a way that was not immediately indicated by the news coverage. Drum confesses to a feeling of divided conscience as a result. I entirely sympathize with him, and am in near-total agreement with the conclusions he draws in his post. I am not particularly interested in the question of whether the facts of each case should be subordinated to a larger social message-- because plainly, the answer to this is "no," from a conscientious rather than consequentialist standpoint. But I am interested in how, if at all, one should respond in a public and permanent medium (like a blog) to criminal cases in which one does not have all the facts. There are cases, that is, in which silence must strike us as cowardice, when it might even seem a tacit endorsement of terrible actions, and this is partly what troubles Drum. But there is plainly cowardice too in rushing to judgment along with the crowd before all the facts are known. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex 23:2) is a command that should be emblazoned on the masthead of every social networking site.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


6:30 PM
The train had pulled into the Harvard Square station, and I was battling with the front edges of panic that were creeping into my brain, like fingers of smoke curling beneath a doorway. There had been a prayer in front of the station for Eric Garner and for healing. Then we had gone underground to wait here at the side of the subway tracks. A group of law students pushed past me with surgical masks over their mouths that bore the words “We can’t breathe.” Looking at the legend gave me the brief sensation that my own throat was constricting. I suddenly had to face the fact that I had no idea what was going to happen on the other end of this train ride. Any protests I had been to in the past had been carefully orchestrated, staid, and populated mostly by the usual handful of middle-aged die-hards—“Unitarians, Quakers, egg-heads and old farts,” as Jessica Mitford would say. You could have brought a picnic lunch. This was going to be something else entirely—massive crowds, civil disobedience, angry police and Boston drivers staring on. My mind began quizzing itself on a dire crescendo of “What ifs.” What if something went very wrong? What if there was a medical emergency? What if I suddenly couldn’t breathe

Monday, December 1, 2014

An Immigration Crisis of Conscience

My previous post on this blog stated a view I very much believe to be true: that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is morally equivalent to ethnic cleansing -- and therefore that President Obama's deferrals of these deportations were admirable for the same reasons that any executive action to withdraw the threat of an ethnic cleansing would be admirable. I return to the point in another post today, not because I wish to retract it-- but because I wish to be very clear about what I mean by it. Ours is a polity of such inflated rhetoric and debased references, after all, that one's eyes can easily glaze over on seeing the words "ethnic cleansing." We have cheapened our own moral coin so much that hearing that a given policy is tantamount to a crime against humanity now entirely fails to shock. What I want to make clear in this post is that I use the term "ethnic cleansing" advisedly-- and not just because I was trying to find the loudest and most abrasive synonym for: "policy I happen to disagree with."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Deportation Deferral: A Burkean Defense

If you're in the mood to let out a hideous shriek of joyless laughter, you could do worse than read John Yoo's intervention into the debate over Obama's recent executive action on immigration. Now, John Yoo, as we know, is a firm believer in constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. These limits are apparently drawn around compelling the president, against his will, to deport 5 million people across the border. Of course, let it also be known that John Yoo is no dogmatist on this point. He has been willing -- graciously -- to concede certain powers to the executive in the past. But dammit, he knows at last where to draw the line, and it is on the side of granting presidential authorization to torture people and detain them without trial, but not on the side of granting the freedom to refrain from deporting immigrant families.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


There's one part of I-90 West where it always happens to me. By this point in the drive I'm far enough away from home and far enough still from my destination to begin feeling deserted and at the mercy of the elements. And then, at a particular curve of the road, I suddenly slam into a wall of unmoving cars, and it dawns on me that it will take at least fifteen minutes to cover the next tenth of a mile. The moment always seems to coincide, by the way, with some shift in the sky overhead, a move from clear New England sunshine to monochromatic gray.  That's when my palms sweat, and I start making tiny coughing sounds and guzzling bottled water. I turn NPR on and off, every five seconds, trying to decide if "Wait Wait... Don't Tell me!" will distract me from the rising terror, or contribute to it by fortifying my sense of forsakenness, as the sound of other people laughing together often seems to do when one is not in on the joke.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Growing Up

Any great coming-of-age tale, whether it is autobiography or bildungsroman, is chiefly a story about four things: sex, death, money, and God (or the absence thereof). And in roughly that sequence. In the case of Gandhi's Autobiography, at least, sex most definitely comes first, and death follows uncomfortably close behind it. (Gandhi was in coitus with his wife, he tells us, at the moment of his father's death-- a temporal coincidence that an adult conscience would recognize as beyond the individual's control, not anyone's fault. Gandhi, however, was no adult at the time of this event. In the mind of a child who had been married at an unconscionably young age, it became knitted into a whole web of self-doubts and inner conflicts where sexuality was concerned.) I don't remember there being as much about money, but there certainly is a great deal about God, and the struggle to find it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Spirits: A Halloween Special

This is the time of year when my skepticism is tested in the fires of various radio stories and articles sent to me by email, each one bearing tales of hauntings, paranormal encounters, and Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). I like -- most of the time -- to think my skepticism is robust, but each of these encounters confirms for me all over again that in fact it is paper-thin. If it were really so airtight, after all, I probably would ignore all these stories, or take for granted that there is some obvious and uninteresting naturalistic explanation behind them. I would not follow the hyperlink each time that leads me down the dark tunnel and toward the white light. But I have a surprisingly gothic sensibility for someone who has no official belief in the ultramundane. I always click on the link, and whatever the story is, a part of me believes it at once, and it is only after spending the whole of the next day disabusing myself that I return to my old stance. I must stitch my skepticism back together again each time from its freshly-rent tatters.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Wrong Way to Argue Against the Death Penalty

History is not on the side of the death penalty-- that's obvious, right? Not only is public opinion gradually souring against it, but our country is also executing fewer people each year now than it has been for the last forty years. Meanwhile, the international consensus against the practice could scarcely be more overwhelming. The United States' policy of execution places it not in the ranks of democratic nations, but among such unsavory company as the governments of North Korea, China, and Iran. The European Union regards capital punishment as so egregious a violation of human rights as to bar from membership a nation that employs it. And so on.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Becoming Re-Radicalized

If there is one type of literary production I know well, it is the story of the naive idealist who joins and soon becomes disillusioned with some radical movement. I was reading that story about why not to be a radical almost as soon as I had become one. I'm very quick and self-punishing when it comes to allowing my most cherished idols to be defaced and overthrown. Radicalism never seems as deeply implausible to me as when I am a radical; it never manages to stare so accusingly and yet beckoningly at me as when I am not one.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Review of "Undocumented" by Aviva Chomsky, Part II

We don't like to admit that we learn things from books we disagree with. Or from books we agree with, for that matter. If you took people at their word, you'd wonder how anyone ever learned anything to start with, since by the time they become readers of books they are all omniscient beings. What stands in the way of our honest admissions on these points, I take it, is that so often the very idea that provoked us into disagreement in the first place is the same one we are later forced to incorporate into our response to it. Long before we have conceded the fact, therefore, the book has already altered our way of thinking.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Review of "Undocumented" by Aviva Chomsky, Part I

There is only one honest place from which to start a discussion of America's current immigration crisis, and that is with an acknowledgment that this crisis is not primarily a political problem -- it is a human rights problem of vast proportions. It is a humanitarian catastrophe that splits children from their parents, locks people away for months or years in detention facilities away from their loved ones, and allows for the maintenance of brutally exploitative labor practices and the denial of collective bargaining. This is where Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented begins, in medias res, and its decision to do so is one of the book's most redeeming features.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Cults and Cruelty

Okay, cut it out Ross Douthat, it's getting spooky now. I swear I had been meaning all week to write something about cults and totalistic movements (Robert Lifton's term); I just needed that one galvanic jolt from the outside world that gives a potential blog topic some claim to newsworthiness and urgency-- and that bothers me enough to set my internal furnaces of outrage belching again. And there, in my hour of need, was Ross Douthat's column on the New York Times Op-Ed page yesterday morning-- treating the subject I wanted to write about, and taking a stance toward it that was perfectly calibrated to rile me up. And this despite the fact that there's been nothing in the news or elsewhere that would explain why we were both thinking, at this particular moment, about cults! Yikes. Why should I, of all people, gain clairvoyance into the mind of Douthat, of all people?-- and why should these sympathies of interest be accompanied by such violent antipathies of outlook? Oh well.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Iraq, Syria, and Commentarial Truancy

I've been meaning to write something for weeks now about America's deepening military engagement in Iraq and Syria, but I've been afflicted with a terrible writer's block every time I tried to do so. I get the feeling I'm not alone in this. Of course, now, a month or so in, and in light of the decision to arm the Syrian rebels, the blogs and opinion pages are finally starting to light up with concern. But for a while there, I think no one really wanted to speak, for once. So they tried saying nothing, and hoped no one would notice. And no one did. History kept uncoiling in front of them, despite their silence.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hell, Again

A friend recently asked about an argument I had made in the early days of this blog about the Christian doctrine of hell -- I'm against it, it turns out. The trouble is that I seem spiritually -- even somatically -- incapable of just declaring that I am against it and moving on. For me, this doctrine is that eternally festering ideological wound-- the one that every writer or blogger or op-ed hack has a version of (else why would they be compelled to go on saying the same things over and over again?). It's the inner scab that gets accidentally reopened by innocent bystanders from time to time -- and compels one to get on one's hobby horse again and ride the poor nag into the ground.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rand Paul: The Prison Reform Candidate?

Earlier in the summer, when the unrest in Ferguson, MO was beginning in earnest, I recall seeing at least two different commentators make the same point about the Republican response to these events. Namely, they argued that this response was surprisingly favorable to the protestors in Ferguson, given what has been standard GOP rhetoric on race, crime, and law enforcement since at least 1968. Could it be, they queried, that something fundamental has changed in the Republican stance on these issues in the last few years? First it was Peter Beinart in The Atlantic who made the suggestion, then I saw Thomas Edsall in the New York Times saying something similar shortly thereafter. Evidently, conventional wisdom was flying into formation at light speed.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" (2009): A Review

Labor Day is as good a time as any to reflect on left-wing icons from the last century, and it was in that spirit that I rented "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" last night and pressed play. As the film progressed, so did my emotional state.  I found myself at first balling my hands in rage and pausing the movie every few seconds to argue with the narrator; then my attitude shifted to cool tolerance as I began waiting for the thing to end, so I could write a devastating critique on this blog; ten minutes away from the finish, however, and my mood changed completely. It suddenly became clear that I had been "had" by the film, in the best possible way. That is to say, my earlier anger had been the deliberate consequence of the narrative technique of the film, and this made me feel both relieved and embarrassed. By the end, however, I was too deeply moved to care about either feeling.  In short, I found this to be an astonishing documentary by two very gifted filmmakers.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The ODD Award Nominees

Dear reader(s?): I would like to formally call for nominations for the first ever Only Decent Dude Award-- ODD for short-- to be hosted by Six Foot Turkey. (It will probably also be the last ever.) This is your chance to nominate, or to select from our list, those individuals who have distinguished themselves in recent history by persistently being the Only Decent humans around.  (Note: I use the word "Dude" in the title for the sake of the acronym alone. Nominees and ODD laureates may be Decent people of any gender or none).  Please cast your vote(s?) or offer your own list of nominees in the comment thread below.  Ultimately, of course, there can only be one Only Decent person, else the title would mean very little, so choose carefully.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Vocation and Self

It occurs to me I was pretty hard on William Deresiewicz last week-- somewhat unfairly so.  It's just that I always turn red and apoplectic when I read a certain type of self-criticism from Ivy Leaguers that is really, I take it, self-congratulation, and I suppose I found William D.'s essay a convenient shorthand for the whole phenomenon.  I think that now, however, having fully exorcised the specter of God and Man at Yale, I can turn back to the original essay in a kinder spirit-- and see what D. was actually trying to say.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zola in the West Bank

I've already inflicted on you my post for the week, so I'll try to make this one relatively brief.  I felt the need, however, to draw some further attention to a story from Israel's Occupied Territories that is not likely to gain much notice in the Western media, but that I find very difficult to get out of my mind.  It is the story of the families of the two people suspected of killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.  Human rights watchdog B'Tselem reported on Monday that the Israeli military has proceeded with the demolition of the homes of both families, as it had been threatening to do for weeks, in retaliation for the murder of the three Israeli youths.  This means that two entire families, 13 children and 10 adults, according to B'Tselem, have been rendered homeless, because two of their members are suspected of murder.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Less Than Sheltered Groves

I guess William Deresiewicz's advice to the nation's rising college class of 2018 is old news by now.  For those of you who missed it, you can follow the link, read the title, and fill in the blanks yourself. The article is another entry in the genre of plangent wails about the corruption of elite universities, written (as usual) by someone who received his entire education from and spent his entire career in such universities-- and which  will be read (again, as usual) exclusively by people who attend, have attended, long to attend, or long for their children to attend these same universities.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Or Is Liberal Zionism the Problem?

Since my last post on the subject of liberal Zionism appeared on this blog, most of the individuals I discussed there have had a chance to address the latest violence in Gaza, whether in print or in interviews.  So far, they have justified most of my fears and very few of my hopes (tentative and watery though these were) about liberal Zionism.  Remember for instance my judgment about Leon Wieseltier? "The most one can say for [him]," I wrote, "is that there are brief moments in reading his articles when one almost thinks he is going to say something, before he elephantinely demurs[.]"  Witty or not (I guess I was hoping to make a pachyderm put-down along the lines of H.G. Wells' assessment of Henry James-- that the latter was like an elephant trying to pick up a pea), the judgement has mostly been borne out.  Wieseltier has offered at least a partial condemnation of Israeli actions in the war in Gaza, but he has done so amidst a great deal of throat-clearing and long rhetorical querying.  The equivocal tenor of his response is well captured by the lines the New York Times chose to quote from it: “A provocation does not relieve one of accountability for how one responds to it [...] For this reason," says Wieseltier, "[…] the war has filled me with disquiet, which my sympathetic understanding of Israel’s position has failed to stifle.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Review of "Lolly Willowes" (1926)

D.H. Lawrence once urged in a poem: “Don’t be a good little, good little boy / being as good as you can,” and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes, in essence offers the same consoling advice to the "good little girls" of the world—especially those of the grown-up variety.  It is the story of these women's unending struggle for solitude and spiritual power, which they must ultimately purchase at the cost of their reputation for goodness and littleness.  It is a detailed record of troop movements and flash points, in the eternal campaign of the church-mousy, English, forgotten-except-for-Christmas, confection-dispensing Auntie, to be either left alone, or else endowed with the authority she deserves—but for once no longer to be both in the constant company of others and eternally neglected by them.  If that sounds like a field of human experience that has little relevance to you, just stay with me.  Because Warner’s book, though intimately tied to her own society, epoch, and experience, has a message for us all.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dazed and Confused (1993): A Review

Dazed and Confused is one of those great and beloved movies whose greatness I can perceive, but whose beloved-ness is lost on me.  It's a 1993 movie about a 1976 crop of high school students, and I suppose part of its emotional appeal at the time it was released derived from the fact that, for audience members who were old enough to have graduated the year it is set, the film was both close enough to and far enough from their high school reality to make for pleasant viewing.  The depiction of its Ford-era teenagers seems to have struck members of that generation as realistic enough to call back memories, but also as concerned with a distant enough time and phase of life that the memories no longer stung.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is Liberal Zionism an Option?

Sounds like a "yes or no" situation, right?-- until you realize that the answer to the title question of this post can only be, of course, that it depends on what you mean by "liberal," and on what you mean by "Zionism."  As in the case of the infuriating mystery-Protestant who, in response to the question "Do you believe in God?", asks us to define "God" and "believe" and "in," this is one of those times when the artful evasion is actually more honest than the so-called "straight answer."  You can't say whether or not the liberal Zionist position is coherent until you know what it is.

Monday, July 21, 2014

More on Gaza, Israel, and Krauthammer

With the civilian death toll in Gaza now twice what it was when I wrote on this subject three days ago, I feel duty-bound to lodge a few more objections against Charles Krauthammer's exculpatory column from July 17th.  You may say that there is a certain "Why bother?" factor to this quest, but I assure you that I don't have any illusions about changing Krauthammer's mind.  He has followed the Israel-Palestine conflict closely enough over the years to know already that much of his column is roundly untrue, and anyone else pointing this out to him will not make a difference.  I do have some hope, however, that I might preserve some of the as-yet unconverted from being taken in by Krauthammer's assertions, delivered as they are with such apparent confidence.  This I will try to do.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Gaza, Israel, and the Lone Intellectual

There is a sickening scriptedness to the latest ramp-up in violence between Israel and Hamas -- one that, to those of us who don't have to live in its presence directly, can impart to the whole set of events a nimbus of unreality.  Ten hours into the conflict and I knew the names of all the articles I'd be reading on the subject over the next few days, and what they would say.  Obviously, for people whose loved ones are killed or whose homes are obliterated, these events have a terrible freshness.  But for those of us whose only daily experience of violence comes through the blogosphere or the airwaves, it is easy to succumb to a feeling of deja-vu, and with it, a certain callousness.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Samurai Cop" (1991) and the Good Bad Movie

My friends and I realized long ago that if you're going to do a movie night, you should never go for the good movie.  A good movie can be seen on your own time, whenever you like, and the effect will be undiminished.  It's for the bad movie that you really need company.  Now, unfortunately for some, fortunately for aspiring hosts, bad movies are not hard to come by-- movies that exhibit some utterly warped and debased value system, movies that gratuitously exploit our deepest instincts and feelings for a cynical end, movies that are just plain grueling and boring and odious; these are plentiful, and I am willing to watch any of them with you on a dull evening.  But what the host truly desires and seeks, with unerring if at times futile purpose, is the good bad movie-- a phenomenon on which much has been written, but of which there are always too few examples.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Let's pretend for a minute that you're a longterm Scientologist, and you have just decided to read Lawrence Wright's 2013 opus Going Clear, on the history of that movement.  Why are you reading it?  You have perhaps been warned not to do so by your other friends in the Church.  You have been informed that the book is nothing but lies, fabricated by people who left Scientology and who now want to validate their new existences on the outside by telling journalists whatever they want to hear-- whatever accusations against the Church will sell.  This is still your consciously-held belief.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

History Has Still Not Ended

I owe to my friend Isaac May the observation that title is everything in academic publishing.  That is to say-- the quickest path to ensuring that your latest work will be referenced for decades to come in every bibliography and introduction from the academic presses is to give it a simple title that conveys an absolutely unmistakeable thesis.  "The End of Ideology," "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," and so on.  The simplicity of the thesis, and its instant accessibility on the cover page, will ensure that no one feels compelled to actually read your book before referring to it, and they will reward you for the effort you have saved them with instant notoriety.  I can't promise that the references they make will always be positive.  The one-dimensionality of your title-thesis may delight and prove memorable simply for how easy it is to refute.  But you will at least avoid scaring off all those bottom-feeding footnoters and bloggers (like yours truly) by demanding that they actually spend time with your book before assessing it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

ISIS and Responsibility

Summertime used to promise a dry spell in the news cycle-- but the last two years it has been the season when societies crumble and blogs arise from the ashes.  This time last year, it was the NSA/Snowden scandal that was hitting the airwaves-- this summer it is the catastrophe in Iraq.  I guess the hot weather, and the occasional flashes of thirst that strike us as we motor from one air-conditioned location to the next, remind us of the vast parched lands that we are still sort of at war with in the Middle East.  Of course, the people of Iraq don't need much reminding.  Their exposure to car bombs and shootings is not governed by the vagaries of the news cycle.  Nor would the recent ISIS disaster take them so completely by surprise, the way it shocked American readers by its apparent suddenness (myself very much included).  The sectarian civil war in Iraq, often dated strictly to 2006, never really ended for them-- 8,000 people died in Iraq last year from sectarian atrocities and street terrorism, according to Bob Dreyfuss, and the numbers will be much higher in 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Turkey Turns One

This week marks the one year anniversary of the first post on this blog, and I figure a year's worth of weekly posts is enough to earn me the reward of the following entirely self-indulgent exercise, in which I talk about the story of this blog up to this point rather than anything that's happening in the outside world-- assuming, of course, that this isn't essentially what I do in every post on this blog, but more on that later.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Easterly, Development, and Tyranny

"[S]hared hatreds make for strange bedfellows," said Albert Hirschman.  He had in mind the way in which Marxian and libertarian critics of economic development often make the same arguments against the very same things, usually under the false impression that they are attacking each other by doing so -- like two blindfolded duelists bayonetting the same scarecrow and both crying victory. Well, the pattern diagnosed by Hirschman has repeated itself many times in the years since.  Those of us on the Left, for instance, probably thought we had the decisive monopoly on venting spleen against the IMF, the World Bank, and other international development institutions.  How eery, then, to read David Rieff's review of William Easterly's The Tyranny of Experts in the New York Review of Books.  Here we find Easterly, an admirer of Hayek and of free enterprise, charging these very same institutions with committing "imperialism," with shamelessly supporting despots and autocrats in developing countries, and with harboring an arrogant white savior complex.  It is as if we heard the soft verses of "Silent Night" drifting to our ears from the other side of No-Man's Land. "Whatever hope is yours,/ Was my life also," Easterly's book seems to be saying.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Liberalism is a Tradition

Joan Robinson’s Economic Philosophy (1962) is a witty and concise polemic, the great theme of which is the seemingly unconscious way in which economists mistake their prior ideological and metaphysical commitments for scientific “discoveries” in the field.  Like most critiques of ideology, however, the book is better when it is tearing others down than when it offers its preferred alternative.  Robinson was a left-wing Keynesian of the middle years of the last century, and when she gets to modern macroeconomics and theories of development – the obsessions of her own career, era, and cohort – she suddenly adopts the same “As we now know…” tone that she finds grating among the Neoclassicals.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Some Recent Thoughts on Morality: A Summing Up

For those who saw my last post on Wittgenstein, it will not require especially keen vision to read some autobiography between its lines – particularly in the passages having to do with Wittgenstein’s tortured relationship to his own discipline.  Wittgenstein, on my reading, did philosophy because he was looking for a way to stop philosophizing, which is something I can relate to.  Whatever things in life Wittgenstein found “intrinsically interesting” were not the things he wrote and thought about.  A persistent theme of Ray Monk’s biography is Wittgenstein’s perpetual attempts to flee into the real world, to really enter into the “stream of life” (a romantic phrase that appears frequently in the biography and in W.'s written output).  Wittgenstein often expressed an urge to do something with his life that would be more "helpful" to people—curing their ailments or their psyches, for instance.  To him, the philosopher was a strange and parasitic excrescence on society-- one who created non-problems in realms that other people seemed to inhabit without the least trouble.  A passage from one of Wittgenstein’s lectures reads: “Suppose people are playing chess.  I see queer problems when I look into the rules […] But Smith and Brown play chess with no difficulty.  Do they understand the game?  Well, they play it.” (Quoted in Monk, 356).  Monk hypothesizes that in this passage, Wittgenstein was attempting to persuade himself of something as much as he was his students:  it is “redolent of Wittgenstein’s own doubts about his status as a philosopher, his weariness of ‘seeing queer problems,’ and his desire to start playing the game rather than scrutinizing its rules,” says Monk (Ibid.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wittgenstein: Thinker, Saint, and Self

Many young people with introverted and bookish tendencies have probably nourished a Wittgenstein fantasy before -- or will do so when confronted with an outline of his life (I very much include myself here).  Wittgenstein led the ideal type of the life of the intellectual saint, after all.  Born into an exceedingly wealthy Austrian family, he renounced his entire inheritance and spent much of his adult career fleeing from the work that seemed laid out for him to do as a professional academic, in the pursuit of perfect solitude.  This pursuit led him to such romantic settings as the fjords of Norway and to a village in rural Austria where he worked as a schoolmaster, in every case seeming to end up against his own inclinations back at Cambridge, as if pulled by elastic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review of JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone's JFK is a very impressive film if you are a 15-year-old self-described "anarcho-communist" who is convinced, mostly with justice, that everything you thought you knew about the U.S.government is wrong.  See it after that point, however, and you will find the film has dramatically overstayed its welcome.  This was the mistake I made recently in attempting to introduce a friend to this classic of conspiracy-mongering Americana.  I was prepared this time, as I had not been at age 15, to show greater skepticism toward the charges the film levels against every branch of the U.S. government and too many private actors to count.  What I was not prepared for was how dramatically inept -- how terribly boring -- it is.  I went in with the expectation that the pseudo-history in the script wouldn't withstand much scrutiny, but that the movie would still bear up somehow as entertainment.  Well, yes to the first, and no to the second.  The movie is in fact three hours of Kevin Costner speaking rapidly to nameless characters who will never appear again about arcane details of Kennediana that only the initiated conspiracy buff will understand.  How did I ever watch this? I wondered.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Devil's Advocate

Satan came to Cambridge, MA yesterday, and thus far, the people of this city have not been smitten, blasted, transformed into pillars of salt, or driven into the sea like so many possessed swine.  I presume this means the devil and his minions were successfully vanquished.  For this we must thank the Holy Alliance composed of President Drew Faust, the mysterious entities who hold the purse strings of Harvard's endowment (who, whatever else they may be, are evidently anti-Satan), the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Fox and Friends, Greta Van Susteren, and internet swarms of the ever-vigilant and easily perturbed.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry and Rebellion

One of the more thankless tasks which fall on the shoulders of the UU ministry student is that of obtaining a growing arsenal of "readings" for all occasions -- poems, anecdotes, inspiring quotations and more, which one might be called upon at any moment to enlist to provide peace of mind to oneself and one's hearers.  The trouble in my case is that I like exactly two kinds of poetry, neither of which belongs in this sort of arsenal -- poetry which beats one over the head with an ethical or political or theological message, and poetry which is grotesque and disturbing and morose. I have been chagrined to find before that these are not the universal parameters of taste.  More significantly, the ministerial situation calls for some words of comfort, and the only words that I ever find memorable in poetry are those of affliction.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Three Poems

What’s Good

Gottfried Benn made a list of “what’s bad”
And it’s pretty good.
I guess that would put it on my list
Of countervailing forces, i.e. of
Things that are good

Botched Execution

To family of the victim
And others present in the viewing area
We must deeply and sincerely apologize for the fact
That the execution you witnessed
Resulted in death.
Rest assured that we will do all we can to guarantee
That this will never happen again.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fred Rogers

If you have some morbid curiosity about the advanced forms of insensate evil, you could do worse than look at this old and titanically mean-spirited "Tribute" to Fred Rogers, published in the Weekly Standard.  I think the tone of the thing is supposed to be "good-natured satire" or "friendly sniping" from across the political aisle, or something.  But in this attempt, if attempt it is, the piece falls catatonically flat.  Watching the American right-winger attempting to wield humor -- and more especially, irony -- is like seeing a villainous cartoon character hurl a boomerang at his nemesis and then confidently dust off his hands. Neither realizes that the joke will ultimately be on them.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gandhi, Theodicy, and Humanism

"We who have faith in God must cherish the belief that behind even this indescribable calamity there is a divine purpose that works for the good of humanity. You may call me superstitious if you like; but a man like me cannot but believe that this earthquake is a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins." ~Mohandas Gandhi, 1934
Earthquakes have long posed the problem of God’s justice in particularly stark form.  In all such disasters, God not only appears to deal out suffering to human beings, but moreover to inflict it indiscriminately and collectively, without regard to degrees of innocence.  Some might philosophize that the more familiar cruelties and exigencies of life are necessary in this "best of all possible worlds," but it becomes more difficult to apply the same logic to catastrophes on a greater scale.  The sight of children being crushed in their sleep by collapsing buildings gives even Pangloss pause.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thoughts on Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts (2002)

In his memoir, Arrow in the Blue, Arthur Koestler recalls an episode from the Depression years in Eastern Europe, when he was a young man: "Meat, coffee, fruit had become unobtainable luxuries for large sections of the population, even the bread on the table was measured out in thin slices; yet the newspapers spoke laconically of millions of tons of coffee being dumped into the sea, of wheat being burned, pigs being cremated, oranges doused with kerosene 'to ease conditions on the market.' It was a grotesque and incomprehensible paradox [...] When people starve and food is destroyed before their eyes [...] then the last judgement must be at hand." (322).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do You Believe in Magic?

Scene: I was sitting with a friend from back home on a couch, watching him play a videogame.  For no particular reason, it entered my head to say: “Can you whistle?”  It is worth noting here that this was one of those cinematic games, where the characters interact with one another through an elaborate script.  The game had nothing at all to do with whistling in any obvious way, and the context of the scene, to my recollection, would not have particularly inspired thoughts of whistling.  My friend answered "no" to my question.  We didn't say anything for a short while.  Then the eery, skin-prickling event occurred: We both heard a character on screen echo my question back to us -- "Can you whistle?" -- and proceed to do so.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stories and Bettelheim, Cont.

In my last post, I argued that pre-adolescent children need stories that speak directly to their distinctive emotional needs and crises, and not just to those of teenagers and adults.  This should be a relatively obvious point, yet it is often overlooked by media companies beholden to the marketing ploy of “family entertainment” (where the visuals are all for the young children, and the story, characters, dialogue, and humor are all for the benefit of adults and older siblings).  In doing so, these companies are engaging in a behavior that Bettelheim thinks will mar any good kids story, and which children themselves recognize immediately as duplicitous: that of “winking at the adults over the heads of the children.” (p. 168).   

Friday, March 21, 2014

Frozen (2013): A Bettelheimian Analysis

The fact of me seeing and enjoying a contemporary movie is such a rare occurrence that I decided it should be commemorated in a blog post, so I’m reviewing Disney’s Frozen (2013)-- even if it means I’ll have to repair my credentials as a highbrow in the weeks that follow.  More seriously, I've found myself ruminating about this movie to an unusual degree, which suggests to me two things: 1) that it is a quality film-- reasonably thoughtful and well-scripted; and 2) that it is probably a rather poor film for young children, who face very different crises of identity and consciousness than we do and often ruminate on very different subjects. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Review of E.P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast (1993)

There are never enough authors around who seem worth reading.  To examine a book by one of these happy few, E.P. Thompson, written as a treatise about another of their number, William Blake, is therefore such a delicious prospect that it seemed almost immoral.  I'm the kind of person who, if there are both green vegetables and macaroni and cheese on his plate, will eat the resented flora first, just to get it over with, and realize too late that he filled up on it before getting to the good stuff.  I am the same way with reading matter, in most cases.  As soon as I realized, however, that the first two-thirds of Thompson's book was entirely going to be taken up with an exposition of the theology of an obscure heretical sect in Britain called the Muggletonians, my Protestant conscience relaxed and let me read on.  This was starting to seem more like work.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Same Sex Weddings and Discrimination

I usually complain about commentators who have been flogging the same dead horses for years.  The New York Times Op-Ed Page, say, can often seem like a veritable charnel house of decayed nags.  How can they stand, I wonder, saying precisely the same thing every day for decades?  Well, stones and glass houses and all that.  I now find I’m hardening into my own handful of redundant notions which I feel compelled to state and restate over again in modestly altered contexts.  It’s not that I enjoy repeating things—it’s torture.  Rather, I find each time after I’ve made a point that I made it with just slightly the wrong emphasis.  It struck just faintly a false emotional note.  Perhaps I spent a little too much time giving my adversaries their due before getting into my own argument, or not enough.  So I have to get back on the horse—the dead one, presumably.  There’s a good T.S. Eliot line about this, but I find I’ve already quoted that too—further indication of my shrinking repertoire.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Another Iron Law

Enunciating a universal principle of ideology:  "There's always a bigger fish."

The canonical textual citation of the principle comes from Star Wars Episode I and is spoken by Qui-Gon Jinn, whose craft is saved from a "Goo-ba fish" (or something-- the name is extruded from the lips of Jar Jar Binks and is therefore difficult to make out) by an even bigger monster.

In the context of ideological warfare, however, it refers to the universally valid proposition that no matter how stupid and pernicious an idea may be, there will always emerge some even more stupid and pernicious idea that will make it seem comparatively benign.  Like in the movie, these two will feed on each other.  Unlike in the movie, however, they will not cancel each other out.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Self-Consciousness and the Victorians

Historians should have their credentials revoked if they ever quote with approval something a modern-day politician has said about the past.  Politicians are in the business of presenting their ideas and policies as at once entirely new, which they never are, and immeasurably ancient, when in fact, very little in our culture is ever as old as we think it is.  They therefore should be the last people we trust as unbiased informants about times gone by.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dworkin's Book That I Haven't Read

A recent conversation with Ajay in a Barnes and Noble yielded a shared revelation.  We discovered the existence of a whole new genre of book to add to the list of those which are just not worth reading.  I have in mind the short book written by the "senior academic," on the basis of a set of lectures or a magazine article, which conveys a single and obvious and already universally-held idea-- usually the idea that is already apparent from the title.  One feels as if one has exhausted its content from looking at the front cover.  And if one has a blog and is a snot-nosed peddler of opinions, one feels justified in writing about such books without having read them-- maybe on the basis of a few reviews.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sex Work and the Left

Driving in the car last night I caught an episode of Latino USA on NPR which concerned (among other things) sex trafficking in the United States.  When I tuned in, the host, Maria Hinojosa, was speaking to a pseudonymous male sex worker and activist who was making a broad case for de-criminalizing the sex trade-- though decriminalizing exactly what and for whom was not entirely clear from the brief interchange.  The activist, who went by Andy, began by stating that as a teenager, he had been compelled by circumstances to seek "protective" sexual relationships with adults-- in exchange for money.  He wasn't clear about what those circumstances were, but we can imagine them -- homelessness, isolation, abusive parents-- the lack of any adult figures, in short, who are supposed to protect children in our society without demanding sex (rape, let us be clear) in exchange.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Casino (1995): A Review

The mob movie's hold over the American psyche has its obvious explanations.  Money, sex, power, and the ability to physically dominant and intimidate others-- some part of ourselves always wants these things-- wants them unblinkingly-- and we will always enjoy possessing them vicariously through fictional characters.  But there are plenty of other realms where these things are equally abundant, but which we aren't as hungry to inhabit.  Nobody ever made movies about the binges and excesses of the Cold War power elite, say (The Resistible Rise of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has yet to find a studio).  The boardrooms of Reagan-era financial firms only seem to have provoked contemptuous satire (American Psycho) and moralizing criticism (Wall Street).  It seems the appeal of the mob movie has to do with something more deeply rooted than naked bodies and dollar signs.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Crime and Agency

One of my recent-ish posts on this blog addressed itself to retributive theories of justice.  I argued that "retribution" has no legitimate role to play in our theories of punishment, because it rests on the notion that the infliction of suffering on a wrong-doer can somehow serve as compensation to a victim.  In short, it implies that the suffering of the criminal is good as suffering-- a notion that very few of us would accept, when shown in this light.   In conversation and elsewhere, my co-blogger Ajay raised some interesting objections to the post, however-- not, I believe, on the basis of the argument so far, but on the step I made next.  I went on to argue-- or at least, to imply with gestures difficult to mistake-- that there can be no case in which punishment is good in itself.  Punishment is violence, after all, though we are apt to forget it in a society that has abolished the lash and the knout and the rack (though it holds on to the syringe and the solitary cubicle).  The act of depriving someone of her or his freedom is a violent one, and imprisonment is coercive by definition.  My suggestion in the post, not fully spelled out, was that such violence can never be justified on purely deontological (Kantian) grounds-- meaning that punishing someone is never a way of treating her as an "end" rather than a means.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

God and Morality

Bad arguments attract bad arguments, with whom they like to mate and proliferate.  The places where Intelligent Design (ID) meets its critics appear to be especially fertile spawning grounds.  At the general level, this is because bad arguments, even when they are made from diametrically opposed points of view, tend to share a frame of reference.  They both make their waves in the shallow end of the pool.  It is more particularly the case with respect to ID and its foes, because both refuse to accept the fundamentally subjective nature of their claims.  Each points out easily that its opponent does not have an ultimate foundation to stand on-- but (to mix my metaphors pretty shamelessly), each fails to see that it has pulled the rug out from under its own feet in the process.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This is Sparta

Orwell remarked in a review of a hard-boiled 1930s crime novel that the book in question was "a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age."  What he meant was that its characters were all equally debased and the moral distinctions between them as nominal and meaningless as those between Stalin and Hitler.  The novel was a fantasy version of the world around it-- one composed entirely of gangsters.  It was this reality that fed it with imagery and with fodder for self-projection.

Monday, January 13, 2014

I Doubt That

Ross Douthat is back with a point he has made before-- the Democrats are attempting to wage war on inequality, but they have done so by galvanizing an upper middle class portion of the community which only vibrates to the tune of populist rhetoric so long as it is directed just over their heads-- toward the superrich. The true economic interests of this class, after all, will not genuinely coincide with an anti-inequality agenda, which would have "to raise taxes and expand transfers" to accomplish its goals, says Douthat in a follow-up.  The Democratic reliance on such voters will ever blunt the real force of the party's populism, he suggests, meaning it will remain the sort of party it was under Clinton, and not a voice for "the more sweeping post-Obama populism than liberals are getting excited about today."  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Read the News

All writers will confirm the titanic and soul-sucking mortifying-ness of rereading one's work, especially a long time after it was written.    To read something by someone else is to see manna fallen from heaven by comparison-- something effortlessly beautiful forged by some distant, disinterested, wholly selfless hands. To read your own stuff, meanwhile, is to see all the contrived clevernesses, the vanity etched in every line.  "Sheer egoism"-- that was Orwell's number one reason as to "Why I Write."  True of all writers-- but we sense it most in our own hand.  I can't tell you how many times I've gone back to some "piquant passage" of mine, some "pungent peroration," say,-- oh so succulent-- only to discover a lot of "asinine assonance"-- usually with a typo to boot.  Philip Roth reports being appalled by how dreadfully "young" he sounds in Portnoy's Complaint.  Gore Vidal said rereading Myra Breckinridge would be an act of masochism.  I relate.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Great Books and the Neocons

"I’ve always been sorry that political conservatives took up the phrase ‘the great conversation’ to mean only the books they approve of." ~ Jonathan Z. Smith

In the second half of the 20th century, a fever gripped America: a fever of cultural insecurity.  As I understand it, the insecurity concerned both our morals and our intellects.  Suddenly, it became quite evident to us that we were neither as good nor as educated as our church-going, Latin-studying forbears and something had to be done about it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Road Trip

The Easterner

“The furnace-brain of a demon king
Sleeps under the Rockies’ insect wing
In columns of water erupt its young
Highways unroll like its fetid tongue
‘Cross plains caked in snow like molted skin
Through states we could only have earned for sin
Through empty fields and belching gas
From rendering plants at every pass
Where they butcher hogs and melt them down
And serve them at each poky town.